Louise and Thomas Boddie
2018 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
They were the perfect couple to start Cleveland’s first African American owned and operated recording studio, actually one of the first in the US. Louise grew up in Mississippi with gospel, country-western and the blues as the soundtrack of her childhood. The late Thomas grew up in Cleveland, demonstrating his mechanical-electronic genius early on by repairing broken toys that he found for his younger brother.
After her family moved to Cleveland when she was 14, Louise attended Glenville High School in 1953. Thomas had completed the industrial electronics track at East Technical High School in 1942 and was the only African American in an all white graduating class. Promised an interview and job with a local industrial company upon graduation, he was neither interviewed nor hired. Fortunately, a friend in Dayton told him there were jobs working with airplane engines at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where Thomas was hired and then inducted into the Army to serve during WWII.
When he returned to Cleveland, he got a job with the Hammond Organ Co. repairing organs in homes and churches and used his mustering out pay from the Army to buy a recording machine. He set up a studio in his basement in Glenville. “Recording studios always start in basements,” Louise says with a laugh.
The two met in 1953 when her mother hired Thomas to repair their TV. She didn’t see him again, though, until about ten years later, when they were introduced by a mutual friend, Bill Hawkins, a nationally known DJ here. They began seeing each other regularly, and in April 1963, they were married.
Louise had gotten her real estate license and was selling homes. Thomas had purchased a former dairy on Union Avenue in 1959 with dreams and plans to build a new recording studio complex. They converted the dairy building behind their new home into the studio. They tore down the dairy truck garage behind that and built a new additional recording facility.
“In the studio, I cut demos and was able to mix tapes,” Louise explains of the early days of Boddie Recording Co. “But I also learned how to lay tile, smooth out concrete, paint. I did everything!”
They served a clientele ranging from gospel, soul and rhythm and blues groups to rock, bluegrass and country musicians from as far away as Detroit and West Virginia. At that time, it was the only black-owned studio anywhere that manufactured its own records; not even famed Motown did that.
One day, a recording studio downtown informed a young man that he should visit the Boddies if he wanted to cut a country-western record, since they didn’t know how to do it. “We recorded him and his group, and from that point on, they started calling us ‘Little Nashville,’” Louise recalls. “On the weekends, musicians came from West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and surrounding Appalachian areas.”
Thomas had rigged together some pioneering portable equipment, so the Boddies could provide on-site recordings when no one else could. They traveled the country to record everything from funerals, bar mitzvahs and religious seminars and conventions and everyone from a young Sonny & Cher at Cleveland’s Teenage Fair to famed Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver at The Temple.
“At one time or another, we recorded every church in Cleveland, so every pastor in Cleveland knew about us, too!” Louise recalls.
“The two of them were an amazing couple, and worked together so very well,” attests Rev. Charles P. Lucas, retired pastor from St. James AME Church, where the Boddies attended church and Thomas directed the sound ministry and built a recording booth at the church.
In the mid ’60, the Boddies ended up recording every group that played Leo’s Casino for many years, including The O’Jays, and then delivered the master tapes to their record companies. “That’s really how we got started and got to be best known,” Louise says. They also made close connections with some of the Cleveland public schools and brought students to the studio to record free of charge. In the mid ‘70s, they even cut records for Devo and the Kinks. Eventually, in addition to pressing record discs, Boddie Recording could also produce cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs and videos.
Things weren’t always easy. The Boddies encountered racism’s nasty head several times when they occasionally had difficulty obtaining loans, despite maintaining a spotless record for repaying any they had. They received threatening phone calls and letters requesting to buy their equipment. One of the scariest incidents occurred during the Glenville riots, when they heard people were planning to burn down their studio. They had family and friends positioned on overlooking rooftops, but fortunately nothing happened.
“We always lived by the motto: ‘Let the work that I do speak for me,’” Louise says.
When Thomas died in 2006, she decided to close The Boddie Recording Co. “After Tom died, I knew that I could not do everything alone, including taking care of all of the equipment by myself, so I just shut everything down,” she says.
For 20 years, Louise had also served on Cleveland’s Community Relations Board under four mayors, starting with Ralph Perk. Last October, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson oversaw the dedication of a photograph of the Boddies at every corner along East 124th Street from Union to Corlett.
Today, music historians from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have interviewed her about the Boddies’ legacy, and archivists from Chicago are digging into the extensive recording collection and planning to release a compilation of the Boddies’ work.
“I was just so delighted to win a Cleveland Arts Prize,” Louise says. “All the years my husband and I put into the work, all the hardships we went through, and it was just amazing. I tear up when I talk about it. I wish he were here to know that we have received such a high honor, but I know he’s here in spirit.”